Choosing the best iPhone office apps for productivity

With Apple’s iOS 4 supporting corporate security requirements, companies are increasingly saying an explicit yes to iPhone use. Certainly, an iPad makes more sense as a lightweight laptop replacement (see InfoWorld’s picks for the best iPad office apps), but there are many times you can’t easily pull out a laptop or iPad but can use a smartphone. Just as companies typically install a suite of productivity apps (nearly always Microsoft Office), what should the iPhone equivalent be?
The office suite candidates are Apple‘s iWork apps (Pages, Keynote, and Numbers, which cost $10 each), Quickoffice’s Quickoffice Pro ($10, but its price changes frequently), and DavaViz’s Documents to Go Premium ($17). Note that, like the iWork suite, Documents to Go is a universal app, so it can run on iPhones and iPads — and if you have multiple devices, one license covers all the devices for a specific user. Quickoffice’s iPhone version is not compatible with the Pad or vice versa; if you use both devices, you’ll need to buy a separate version for each.

The iWork suite and Quickoffice both have a word processor, a spreadsheet editor, and a presentation editor; DocsToGo (as it’s labeled on the iPhone) has a word processor, a spreadsheet editor, and a tool to add notes to a presentation. All three suites read and write to the Microsoft Office file formats, as well as text files. As you would expect, the iWork apps also read and write the iWork formats as well as export to PDF.

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I’ll first pick out the best individual productivity apps, then pull together a recommended suite that includes utilities that should be part of your standard iPhone arsenal:

The best word processor for the iPhone

If you’re using an iPhone to create or edit documents, expect to be limited to simple tasks, such as basic editing, touch-up work, commenting, and creating summaries or basic notes. None of the office apps supports revision tracking; if that’s essential to your workflow, you’re out of luck.

Pages. Pages on the iPad is a great app. On the iPhone, it’s not so good. One key reason is that the text is hard to read on the iPhone, even with the fit-to-screen capability of Pages when you tap text to edit. Plus, it doesn’t work in landscape orientation, where the text would be larger and easier to edit. One saving grace is that you can use the expand gesture to zoom into the text, which helps a lot.

Pages does have sophisticated editing capabilities, such as search and replace, chart and table insertion, multiple-column layout, and list formatting. No competitor comes close in the editing and formatting possible in Pages, though Pages has one potentially show-stopping quirk: It strips out style sheets from Word files, which can render them unusable in some workflows.

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Like all the iWork apps, Pages automatically saves all changes to your documents, so you can’t cancel your changes; work on a copy to be safe. Also like all the iWork apps, it doesn’t operate with cloud storage services such as Google Docs, Dropbox, and Box.net (though you’ll be able to sync them among your own devices via iCloud). If you want to share files with others, your options are limited to email or syncing to your computer via iTunes and sharing from there. Dropbox users have a work-around: The $5-per-month DropDAV.com service adds the CalDAV protocol to Dropbox so that Pages and the other iWork apps can exchange files with it. Box.net users have a similar (and free) work-around: Log in from iWork apps via CalDAV using your Box.net sign-in credentials.

Quickoffice. Quickoffice’s word processor is simple, with straightforward controls for basic formatting, such as font, text size, paragraph alignment, and lists. Its text is easier to read, and the autozoom feature when you’re editing is nice. But Quickoffice has no search-and-replace capability, though it can search. (It also has a word counter.)

I found it awkward to have to tap a Done button to close some of the pop-up dialog boxes that Quickoffice uses for formatting. I kept trying to tap elsewhere on the screen, as is the typical approach in iOS to close a control.

There are no layout controls, so you can use Quickoffice only to work on text. Happily, Quickoffice retains the style sheets in your imported documents, so they’re intact when you later export a document, even though it doesn’t let you create, edit, or apply styles.

Quickoffice can connect to Box.net, Dropbox, Google Docs, Huddle, and SugarSync cloud storage, as well as to a computer directly over Wi-Fi. Of course, it can also email documents, and it provides a Save As option, as well as an internal folder structure so that you can organize your documents.

DocsToGo. DataViz’s app is similar to Quickoffice in terms of its capabilities: It’s a simple text editor with basic formatting options and nearly the same cloud storage connection options (all but Huddle). However, DocsToGo offers more capabilities, such as search and replace (with case and whole-word criteria) and word counting.

I couldn’t recommend the iPad version of DocsToGo due to a really dumb UI design: All controls are at the bottom of the screen, where they become hidden by the onscreen keyboard. The iPhone version has the same design, but it doesn’t cause a problem as it does on the iPad. The reason: You typically type with one finger on an iPhone, so tapping the floating Hide Keyboard button right above the onscreen keyboard is a trivial task that doesn’t get in the way. On an iPad, where you tend to type with multiple fingers, the action to hide the onscreen keyboard is somehow much more of an interruption, and putting the controls at the bottom of the screen is fairly standard in iPhone apps — Quickoffice does it too.

DocsToGo is slightly easier to use than Quickoffice, as its basic formatting options can be selected from menus, with no closing dialog boxes. If you open a “more” dialog box, though, you have to tap Done to close it, as in Quickoffice.

The verdict: A tie between Pages and DocsToGo. Pages is hands-down the most capable text editor for the iPhone, but its text is hard to read and its lack of landscape orientation compounds that usability issue. With DocsToGo, you get more editing capabilities than in Quickoffice and a slightly more straightforward user interface. If you use Pages on an iPad, you’ll probably also opt for it on the iPhone. But if you’re iPhone-only, DocsToGo is a better choice.

The best spreadsheet editor for the iPhone

The capabilities of the candidate spreadsheet editors are much closer than for the word processors.

Numbers. Numbers on the iPhone is remarkably easy to operate. Apple’s use of modal keyboards for numeric and date entry really speeds up formula entry, and the controls over formatting and cell layout are quite capable. Adding worksheets is also easy. My only complaints are that Numbers does not work in landscape orientation, and that you can’t cancel the changes you make to a spreadsheet (although you can undo individual changes).

Quickoffice. Excel users will take to Quickoffice quickly, as it works very similarly. Quickoffice has a large set of functions, and it’s easy to work with cells, rows, and columns, even on the small screen. Functions are also simple to insert, thanks to the Excel-like function menus that add a sample formula for you.

Switching worksheets requires opening a menu of sheet names — there are no tabs to tap — so those who use Excel (and Quickoffice on the iPad) will have a bit of an adjustment to make in terms of navigation. Quickoffice has no charting tools, nor the ability to sort columns or rows, freeze panes, or hide columns or rows.

DocsToGo. The spreadsheet capabilities in DocsToGo are superior to those in Quickoffice, offering several features not found in Quickoffice, including the abilities to search text (with case, entire-cell, and workbook-versus-sheet criteria), hide rows and columns, sort rows and columns, and freeze panes. It also offers a go-to-cell function and can display the spreadsheet in full screen.

Switching worksheets is an awkward process, involving the opening of a page through which you then slide across available worksheets. Quickoffice’s approach is easier.

Like Quickoffice, DocsToGo uses Excel-like function menus to insert formulas. But DocsToGo provides a bigger window for the formula, making it simpler to edit.

The verdict: Again, a tie between Numbers and DocsToGo. Numbers is in many ways superior, save for that annoying portrait-only display limitation. But Quickoffice holds its own where it counts most, especially if you’re Excel-savvy.

The best presentation software for the iPhone

The choice here is an easy one, as you shall see.

Keynote. Working on a presentation on a small screen is not very easy, but Keynote does a good job of letting you edit and even create complex slideshows, complete with animations. You can zoom in for editing and fine sizing and placement of graphics. The animation features are desktop-class and not terribly difficult to apply even on the small screen. I can’t imagine creating a complex presentation from scratch on an iPhone, even though Keynote is capable of it, but with Keynote I could certainly make major revisions.

On the iPhone as well as the iPad, Keynote works only in landscape orientation. It also suffers from the inability to cancel all changes to a presentation, and it offers more limited cloud connectivity options than its competitors. But it’s the only one to offer find-and-replace capabilities.

Quickoffice. You can do some real work on a PowerPoint presentation in Quickoffice, such as changing objects’ stacking order, formatting and aligning text, and adding and reshaping objects. It’s a fine tool for updating a presentation. But there are no animation capabilities, and the zoom levels are restricted, so it’s often hard to read the text you are editing.

DocsToGo. The DocsToGo suite lets you open PowerPoint files and add notes to them, such as to make comments or provide feedback to your spreadsheet jockey.

It also has basic editing capabilities. In slide preview mode, you can insert a new slide and duplicate or delete existing ones. To edit the text in your slides, you must switch to outline mode — and you can do no formatting. Note that if you’re in outline mode, you have to go back to preview mode to create, copy, or delete a slide. The result is that DocsToGo is acceptable  for touch-up work on existing presentations; you can also create a basic text-only presentation that you might use as the starting point for a slideshow to which you add images and formatting on the desktop. But that’s all.

The verdict: There’s no question that Keynote is the winner in this category. Quickoffice is a solid second choice, especially if you prefer it for text and spreadsheet editing.

The best PDF markup program for the iPhone
There are dozens of apps to open PDF documents on the iPhone, but since the built-in Preview app does that for mail attachments, and most Wi-Fi file-sharing apps also preview PDF documents, what you really want is one that can mark up PDF files, adding sticky notes and the like.

That app is GoodReader ($5). You can do most of the markup as you would in Adobe Reader, such as notes, highlights, and even free-form shapes — for example, to circle an item. Once you get the hang of using your finger like a mouse for such actions, the app is easy to use.

GoodReader is not just a PDF markup app. It can also view Office files, text files, and pictures, as well as play audio files and unzip compressed files. Plus, it comes with a Wi-Fi file-sharing capability to transfer documents to your computer.

Note that GoodReader is not a universal app, so you’ll need to buy a separate version for the iPad.

Additional utilities most everyone should have

The iPhone can’t open Zip files — an amazing omission in the iPad as well. There are several apps that can unzip files, but the best for the iPhone is ZipBox Pro ($2). It’s straightforward to use and also works on the iPad. But if you have GoodReader, you don’t need a separate unzip app, as GoodReader will unzip (and zip) files for you.

If you view native Photoshop files, such as for page layout, Web, or presentation projects, get the Air Files app ($1), which also offers Wi-Fi file-sharing and basic drawing capabilities. (As you can see, Wi-Fi file sharing is built into lots of apps.) Note that Air Files does not run on the Pad; you’ll need the separate AirFilesHD app ($1) for the Apple tablet.

Putting it altogether: The ideal office suite

The arrival of the iWork suite for the iPhone has changed my calculations for best office suite. It’s a close contest between iWork and Quickoffice, with Keynote, Numbers, and Pages winning due to their richer tool set, and GoodReader being the essential add-on. But Pages is the weak link in that group, especially due to its style sheet and portrait-only limitations. Thus, for many users, Documents to Go Premium plus Keynote and GoodReader are a better choice. Add to the mix Air Files if you need to view Photoshop files. It really is a close race for the best iPhone office app suite.

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  • Jeff

    In order to productivity apps I am adding Must Do Today. It is worth to use it.

  • Nice apps… here are some additions like Future Scheduler and Location
    Alerts Productivity apps (Paid).